The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

My friend, who is training to be a primary school teacher, and has a special interest in graphic novels, said to me last year 'Have you read this book? You have to read it.' I took a look at some of the illustrations online, and the authors website, and she was right... I had to read it.
Told entirely in beautiful illustrations, this book tells the story of a husband and father having to leave his homeland to find work somewhere else, where the language and everything is totally different. Not only is he missing his family, but he is struggling to fathom this baffling new world, even to find or understand the basics to survive.
It is not only the lovely pictures that make this book attractive, but the whole feel of the book, hardback, but looking worn like an old book.
The story is moving and educational, and is certainly not just a book for children. Any age can get a lot from this book. I was particularly impressed by the way it conveys the confusion of displacement. Using fantasy to not only explain how the main character feels, but also making you feel lost so that you can appreciate how difficult it must be negotiating new places, customs and social systems.
The illustrations are pencil drawings in various shades of sepia, and many of the people or scenes are old fashioned. Our main protagonist (as seen on the cover above) looks like someone from the 1940's with Trilby and overcoat. A respectable family man in a guise that we all relate to.There is also a mechanical or industrial flavour to many of the scenes, and a highly original imaginative style throughout. There are large pictures taking up a whole page, and small pictures making up a montage of images that compliment the larger scenes and propelling the story forwards.
This is an ideal book to buy as a present. It looks beautiful and makes quite a talking point. It also carries important messages about belonging, and also about helping others who are struggling and establishing community. This is something that the author has first hand experience of, being half Chinese living in Australia, witnessing some prejudice to himself and his father, and also seeing the difficulties that the Aborigines have been subjected to over time.
I have not read many graphic novels. You may remember my review of The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, another beautiful book, but I am fast becoming a fan, of their universal accessibility, and for their sheer beauty. The Arrival is a gorgeous book and comes highly recommended.
The Arrival has its own website, just use the link.
To see more of the illustrations and read the authors inspiration behind the book, use the link for Shaun Tan's website.
You can read others reviews about The Arrival on GoodReads, where the book repeatedly receives 4 or 5 star ratings.
Thank you to my friend for an excellent and memorable recommendation.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

I  have had a mixed relationship with Ian McEwan's novels. There are those that I loved (Atonement, Enduring Love), those I quite liked (On Chesil Beach) and those I didn't like much at all (Saturday and Amsterdam). It was the size of this one that first caught my attention, and that brought me to read it now. A nicely sized 100 pages. There was also the alluring cover, causing me to buy it in Oxfam some time ago. I wanted something quick to read and this was perfect.
Colin and Mary are on holiday in Venice. They are not married but have been partners for several years and their relationship has become antagonistic. Disagreeing has become a habit and they no longer compliment each others mood. They misread each other frequently and become easily offended for the slightest reason. They had hoped that the holiday would bring them closer, but they are following the same patterns, and it is their stubborn antagonism that gets them lost one night, in the many confusing alleyways of Venice. They are rescued by Robert, an enigmatic Italian businessman, who takes them to his bar and tells them stories of his life. They do not realise that their lives will never be the same, as they are unwillingly sucked into his disturbing world, and it makes them re-examine their relationship with each other.
The tension builds from the start, as they snipe at each other on the deserted back streets away from the crowds. You long for them to find where they are, yet even when they are in the middle of St Mark's Square there is no relief from the feeling that something is wrong.
I have always found McEwan's descriptions of couple psychology fascinating and he does not disappoint here. Part of the tension is their own with each other, which then manifests into an external situation, forcing them to examine where they are and reunite. It is the minutiae of their relationship that pushes this story forward with quite a pace.
I was quite shocked as the true intentions of their hosts are made apparent, and the last part provides exciting reading. Worrying, creepy, with a heap of questions on each page, this is a full on thriller and leaves you with a tangible feeling of alienation which lasted after the last sentence was done.
I really enjoyed this book. It made me realise I don't read enough thrillers, and a lot of it is still vivid in my mind. A shifty, nasty little story, excellently atmospheric, with loads of writing technique and the mechanics of relationships to talk about, as well as what drives some peoples behaviour, making this a good one for your reading group.
You can check out this book on Ian McEwan's website.
There is an essay examining the use of Metaphor in The Comfort of Strangers if you wish to expand your opinions of the book.
There is also a film of this book with Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson. I realised about half way through reading the book that I had seen it a long time ago and remember little about it. I will look out for it for comparison.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Harry Hop-Pole by Wispy Gorman

In July last year I spotted this book in Waterstones in Nottingham. The picture on the front reminded me of the Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset, but it has nothing to do with that at all. After flicking through it looked like a strange but original story about a pole vaulter so I added it to my wishlist on the July 2012 Roundup. A few days later the publisher, acorn book company, got in touch and asked if I wanted a complimentary copy to review. They kindly sent me this book and Chef of Distinction by the same author. With my gap in reading last year it took me a little while to get around to it but I did so eventually last October.
The book is a comedy story, following Harry, the pole vaulting genius and his friends (with their own vested interests in his ability) as they set about the task of getting Harry into the Olympics. Their adventures of securing the right pole, avoiding scams and sabotage, and eventually the Games themselves, are depicted and we are taken along every eccentric turn in the story with his pals.
Written with a whimsical humour that is warm and gentle, this is a likeable and clever book with a very English flavour. It is refreshing to read comedy without lewdness or swearing and still be funny by simply describing the colourful and strange characters that we pretty well all meet every day. The details are where the intelligence of the wit lies, making these bizarre people recognisable. I particularly liked the Announcer in the top box with a view at the games, with his 'fat packet of sandwiches... a thermos flask of lukewarm milky tea, and in his jacket pocket - a treat for later, a round, and slightly sickly chocolate biscuit, wrapped in red tin foil... This, then, was his domain.'
It was excellent timing to release such a book in 2011, the run up to London 2012, when all eyes were on the real games and its drama's. Harry Hop-Pole's games are also pretty exciting, forming most of the latter part of the book, and tapping into the comararderie that is instilled between spectators watching one of their own do well.
The style of the book reminded me a little of Terry Pratchett in a more gentle setting, and visually seemed to have much in common with the BBCs The Vicar of Dibley, English village life with a cheeky humour relying on misfit characters. The occasional illustrations also added to the feel of the book.
A pleasant and often funny read forming the first episode in The Wispy Gorman Stories, and his debut novel. Recommended for those who do not like brash comedy, but a more observational humour relevant to these modern times. It is also a short read and a good one for book groups.
To read about the other Wispy Gorman Stories from the publisher use the link.
The book has also made it onto GoodReads and you can read this review amongst others by using the link.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Octogon Challenge 2013 - Updates

I am using this post to keep track of my progress through my challenges for 2013. These tasks are not set in stone, but used to help organise and guide my reading throughout the year. Completed challenges are marked in red.
1. Read another classic American novel

2. Find second hand copies of
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Under The Greenwood Tree and/or The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Persuasion by Jane Austen

3. Read another novel by George Eliot

4. Read a detective mystery
Completed First And Only by Peter Flannery in April 2013

5. Read one or two titles that came from our literary holidays
Completed The Red Tent by Anita Diamant in March 2013 which was my lucky dip prize from our 2010 Jane Austen holiday in Hampshire. It was also recommended by those on the holiday too.
6. Read at least one title acquired in a Book Swap at work
Currently reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, acquired in the 2012 bookswap.

7. Read a book associated with a previous World Book Night event.

8. Read a prizewinner, either Man Booker Prize or Orange prize for literature, or similar.
Completed Eve Green by Susan Fletcher, winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year (First Novel Award) in April 2013.
Also completed The Gathering by Ann Enright, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, July 2013 .

Previous book reviews at The Octogon - 2011

This map represents all of the countries that I read about during 2011. I call them my literary visits because I went to them in my head while reading the various books during that year. Not as colourful as previous years I have to say, but there were some good books in 2011.
Previous book reviews at The Octogon during 2011 were...
One Day by David Nicholls
Our Sweet Little Time: a year in haiku by Hamish Ironside
Ox-Tales: Water by various authors
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Through the Garden Gate by Susan Hill
Through the Kitchen Window by Susan Hill
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Whit by Iain Banks

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Looking back and looking forward...

It has been quite a year, ups and downs with a whole 2 months not reading at all, but some great books along the way. I did beat my total books read from last year nevertheless, with 18 books completed in 2012. One of those was a graphic novel and 2 were non-fiction books which is 3 down on last year. The ratio of male and female authors was exactly equal with 9 each, so many more female writers than last year. This is always coincidental however and the sex of the author does not drive what I read. There was one set of short stories all by the same author (Dubliners by James Joyce).

The Nationalities of authors was as follows...
English - 7
USA - 5
Swedish - 2
Irish - 1
Norwegian - 1
Chinese/American - 1
Australian - 1
The genres of the books read during 2012 were as follows...
Modern Fiction - 2
Natural World (non-fiction)- 2
Childrens - 2
Horror/Ghost Story - 1
English Victorian Drama - 1
Dystopian - 1
Semi-autobiographical - 1
Family Biography - 1
Family Drama - 1
Humourous Fiction - 1
Graphic Novel - 1
Thriller - 1
Play/Drama - 1
American History/Wild West - 1
- 2 titles were prizewinners
- 2 titles were known classics
- 4 of the titles were first works by new authors
Favourite Reads during 2012 were...
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
Oldest and Newest...
Oldest - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 1847
Newest - Harry Hop-Pole by Wispy Gorman, Nov 2011
Favourite Cover Design...
I would say the Oxford World Classics edition of Wuthering Heights depicted the mood of the book just right for me. The picture of the desolate moors provided the perfect atmospheric cover.
Unexpected disappointment...
The Lost And Forgotten Languages Of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu
Favourite Character...
John Grady Cole from All The Pretty Horses. An old fashioned style hero with timeless qualities but still very human.

Challenges for 2012...
My 8 resolutions (and their results in red) were:-

1. To not buy any new books, only acquiring them as gifts, borrowing, or second hand if I have to. This is to get my TBR pile under control and tied in with The TBR Double Dare run by Ready When You Are, C.B.
TBR Double Dare was completed and passed as was the rest of this challenge for the year.
2. To read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte Completed March 2012

3. To read 1 or 2 titles that came up during our lit hol discussions
Completed The Summer Book by Tove Jansson in April, which came up in our Jane Austen holiday in Hampshire in 2010.
Completed The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad in July, which was my lucky dip title from CS on our Thomas Hardy holiday in Dorset in 2011.

4. To read 3 literary articles and blog about them (Uncompleted)

5. To compare 3 book to film stories
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Feb post)
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (March post)

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (June post)

6. To read at least one dystopia novel
Completed The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist in March 2012

7.To read the Zola I have wanted to read since 2009 (this is the 3rd year it has made it on this list and still uncompleted - sigh)

8.To read another George Eliot if possible (Uncompleted but being transferred to next year)

About the same as last year. As I say, these are guidelines for the year and not set in stone.

There are also the books recommended by my work colleagues which I have marked in red if completed. We only have to read at least one of the 3.
AR - The Dubliners by James Joyce, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow and August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
BD - The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersley Cusick and Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer

So how about 2013...
1. Read another classic American novel
2. Find second hand copies of
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Under The Greenwood Tree and/or The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
3. Read another novel by George Eliot
4. Read a detective mystery
5. Read one or two titles that came from our literary holidays
6. Read at least one title acquired in a Book Swap at work
7. Read a book associated with a previous World Book Night event.
8. Read a prizewinner, either Man Booker Prize or Orange prize for literature, or similar.

I would also like to continue not buying any new books and try to beat this years total books read. I will let you know how I get on. There may be the possibility of another literary weekend later in the year but I will need to see how the year pans out.

Wishing you All The Best for 2013 with lots of reading time with some fantastic books.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye